Rebecca Walker vividly recalls those prepubescent days of happiness and melancholy. Being the offspring of a literary legend isn’t exactly the most consistent job. It comes replete with the worst that a child needing attention and doting could imagine, and the best that privilege and resources could bring. It entails pressure, expectations and entitlement. Thwarting these things require an ineffable cool, boundless resolution and – to take the term back from McCain and Palin – a maverick streak. Some people can handle it with ease, grace even. But for many, grace is elusive and it is replaced by a lifetime of bitterness and void.
In the black community, there are few novels and movies that are bigger than Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. For the African-American laity, it’s hard enough to escape the quote recitations, motifs and sheer enormity of the Pulitzer Prize winner. So how does the daughter of its creator, who was 11 at the time of its publication, deal with it?
Both women are currently separated by distance and generation and harbor vastly disparate ideologies; they are not your typical mother-daughter duo. Alice Walker is who she is. Rebecca Walker is who she is. But who, pray tell, is Rebecca Walker?
She is a woman who has spent a good part of her 39 years on earth seeking her mother’s elusive approval. She’s the Jewish-Nubian who spent considerable parts of her childhood being shuffled from coast-to-coast, enduring ridicule from classmates because of her lineage and looks, while imbibing the rich customs of Jews and African-Americans alike. She is the evolved woman of the little girl who became sexually active at a far earlier age than many parents would desire, falling pregnant and having a abortion by 14 years old. She is a woman who attended Yale University, graduated cum laude, wrote several treatises, books and articles, all while haunted by the memory of a lost baby and the fear of not being able to have another one.
She is a woman who finally got that second chance – after a few years in a relationship with another woman – and in the process broke an already tenuous relationship with her mummy. She is, in essence, a woman of omnivorous tastes; a counterculture spokesperson and literary commuter who is still ultimately seeking her halcyon environment, if not understanding, of how to make the world a better place. A quixotic being, but certainly not apathetic.
A person with a backstory such as hers could only have diverse beliefs and a differing sense of the norm. In Bohemian-like fashion, she is deeply passionate about a litany of subjects, not the least of them being Adam Smith, education, familial ecology and establishing her own identity. As Rebecca Walker.
Not that she wouldn’t grudgingly admit that last point. Was Alexander the Great too thrilled about his father’s hovering and ubiquitous presence in his life? No self-respecting child or younger sibling of any accomplished person wants kingdoms handed to them; it’s a no-win proposition. But sooner or later, whether it’s Solange Knowles or Janet Jackson or Rebecca Walker or even Simba, some things are just in the blood and cannot be escaped. Try running from your shadow.
Her resume includes five nonfiction tomes, including an incisive and transparent biography of her lineage, Black, White, Jewish, which chronicles her dealing with the legacy of her African-American feminist mother and Jewish litigating father. Because of the media’s predisposition towards the famous or the black community’s toward Alice Walker, Walker’s father has received little-to-no mention from the media. Walker chuckles at the thought.
“Sometimes people just want you to chose one or the other or just focus on one,” expounds Walker. “My dad is a really big part of my life and he has taught me a lot. My dad is rock solid and I wouldn’t be who I am without him. Sometimes I feel it’s really unfair that nobody pays attention to him.”
A part of the wave of Jewish lawyers that rose to prominence in New York in the 50’s and 60’s, Mel Leventhal was in law school when he met a young voracious looker with a penchant for activism who just transferred from Spelman College. He fell in love and married this heterodox woman, who shared his taste for progression and abhorrence to social injustice. They relocated to Jackson, Mississippi and soon birthed a daughter. Moving down to Mississippi in the 60’s as an interracial couple was blatant defiance. This was a precedence that would stick with young Rebecca Walker throughout her years: bucking societal trends and escaping that dreaded box.
Her newest offering, One Big Happy Family, is a result of conversations, readings and experiences of her dealings within the not-so-traditional sects of contemporary family life. Walker, before meeting the father of her son, came out of a relationship with a woman. To her, normalcy is an ever-shifting term that needs to be addressed on a continual basis, an idiom that is strictly relative to the zeitgeist of an era. Topics in this anthology include personal accounts about polyamorous affairs, penal affairs, gay adoptions and other taboos. Walker edited and provided the intro in this collection about the variations of modern familial love. This is her third anthology.
“I find writers because I read so much, and found writers who seemed to be talking about the themes that I was interested in, who experienced family life in its different configurations,” said Walker, who was named as one of Time magazine’s most influential leaders of her generation. “It’s kind of like doing a magazine, I guess, but a little more in-depth.
“I started doing this book because I found myself falling in love with this guy who was 15 years older than me after I had just been in a relationship with a woman. She had a 13-year old that I was raising with her, which totally broke the nuclear family scenario. Then I started talking to friends and realized that everyone was doing something kinda different. One of my friends who moved to Mexico and fell in love with a guy in a completely different social class than her and another friend was searching for her birth mother and then I started thinking about all the different kinds of families that are real. Then I realized that the American family is changing.”
“In America, so many families have a member in the prison,” Walker softly laments. “That changes the dynamic of the traditional family immensely. I just wanted to support everyone who is doing it differently and create a new normal. The family is changing and we need to respect the choices that people make. Love can expand as wide as you want it to.”
Walker is neither immune or a stranger to criticism. In her memoir, Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After A Lifetime Of Ambivalence, she wrote that raising a step-child and a biological child is not the same: “I don’t care how close you are to your adopted son or beloved stepdaughter, the love you have for your non-biological child isn’t the same as the love you have for your own flesh and blood. It’s different. . . . It isn’t something we’re proud of, this preferencing of biological children, but if we ever want to close the gap I do think it’s something we need to be honest about.” Then she later stated in the New York Times that while she would die for her biological child, she’s not so sure that she would do the same for her non-biological child. She was pilloried by many, who accused of her of being flagrantly insensitive.
It’s all in the name of honesty, she assures, and when honesty is in close distance, this lady has no qualms about seizing it.
“I find it to be very cathartic,” she says. “One of the most important things about living in this life is living it authentically. Human beings have a right to think for themselves and too often people are dissuaded from thinking for themselves and it robs us from creating a life that is more suitable to ourselves. It creates an idea that it’s only one way to be moral. But the true foundation of morality is that you don’t hurt another human being.
“I’m so used to backlash at this point. Sometimes it’s hard. But I get so much positive feedback from people who express that they needed to hear what I say, so that makes it worth it.”
From her perch in Maui, Rebecca Walker is a now a woman endeavoring to conquer her newest and most rewarding challenge: raising a child that she has longed for since…she was a child. Growing up, the prospect of motherhood wasn’t exactly championed in her household: to a feminist, it is a form of servitude. Despite this, Rebecca came to realize that what she longed for as a child is what she can provide for her son, Tenzin. Jubilant news about her pregnancy resulted in disinterest from the lady whose approval she sought the most, and today they don’t speak. Given the hullabaloo, do you think she regrets motherhood? Uh-uh.
However the situation evolves, Rebecca knows that she owes her success and talent in large part to notable pedigree. Her childhood, the great and the tumult, renders her all the richer for it, just as our childhood does for all of us. The legacy of Alice Walker will always be a shadow, whether they are speaking or not. But it doesn’t have to define her.
“I always wrote, but didn’t want to call myself a writer because I didn’t want to compete,” Rebecca pensively reflects. “I felt that that was her territory. She is an awesome writer, a genius, a master writer, and people would always compare my writing to hers growing up.”
It is here where the similarities become clear; perhaps her and her mother are more alike than not. Both are inveterate zealots. Both have one child. Both are forward-thinking progressives. Both resent the box that society tends to put on people. And yeah, they got that writing thing down too.
“I faced a lot of pressure to be in her field. Then I realized…that’s who I am. It was clear. I am a writer and that’s how I moved through the world. Writing chose me, I didn’t chose it. It was more like a family business. In the beginning it was very hard. But now, I visit a lot of college campuses, and there are people who know my writings who never even heard of Alice Walker.”
She pauses, and then perorates:
“I am secure in myself as apart from her. I’m more focused on doing the best that I can do. I’m meeting my own standards as an artist. I love that process. I love being an artist. It’s the best job in the world.”
A person in tune with the minutiae of life, Rebecca Walker seamlessly combines both elements of her heritage into her worldview. There is no standing idle for her. Trends must be bucked, destructive paradigms must be shattered.
Nobel Prize winner and Jewish writer Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
All of which means that Rebecca Walker probably cares a little too much. She had to get it from somewhere.